Writer: Rich Douek
Artist: Brett Barkley
Colors: Jules Rivera
Letters: Nic Shaw
For a change of pace, here’s a combination alternate-history/magic-and-sorcery title for the reader looking for an alternative to the standard superhero fare of comics. IDW’s Gutter Magic lays out its twisted history in an opening page recap: World War II went seriously wrong when wizards entered the war on both sides, resulting in a 21st century that’s technologically behind our own times. The world now resembles something of a Harry Potter-type universe where magic and goblins are common sights, but the “muggles” of the world live in a stagnant society which is stuck in a dieselpunk level of progression. Magic, in fact, seems to be reserved for the wizards who run society
On a micro level, Gutter Magic concerns Cinder Byrnes (puns!), one of those ordinary humans who has to rely on his wits and a pistol in lieu of the magic of his social betters. The titular “gutter magic” is the castoff fringes of magic and tokens that mortals like Byrnes are able to get their hands on, possibly by a Reaganomics “trickle-down” method, though in Byrnes’ case, it’s through very dangerous thievery. Byrnes and his goblin buddy Blacktooth are heisting various wizard homes in search of pieces of a magic spell which will–purportedly–activate the magic powers which he seems to lack in comparison to every other member of his family.
Writer Rich Douek (Oxymoron) has a daunting task ahead of him, as he only has four issues to engross us in his alternate world where technology has stalled and magic reigns supreme. To that end, it could have helped if a little more world-building had been done in this first issue. We know that wizardry somehow got involved in World War II, and we then leap to a modern New York where a shattered Empire State Building floats over the city. How we got to that point isn’t clear at this point, and developing the bigger picture without sacrificing the focus on Cinder Byrnes may be tricky. It’s not impossible, though, and indeed, a surprise hint about the origins of Byrnes’ mystery “spell” suggests that we’ll learn more about the connection between World War II and this alternate present.
Still, there’s a fair amount of ground-level world building with the development of Byrnes as an action hero desperate to get connected to the magic that the “haves” of the world possess and he doesn’t. (Maybe this all an allegory for income redistribution.) This is aided by the art of Brett Barkley–an apparent newcomer with an eye for detail. He’s got a good vision of a world whose technology seems to be progressing backwards, where pressure cookers are on wagons pulled by horses and everyone’s dressing like a steampunk refugee; where goblins wear trenchcoats and street gangs are death-worshipping Bowery Boys. The only place his art seems to hurt is a two-page magical chase sequence which, admittedly, is intended to be confusing. However, his style changes so dramatically that I had to check the credits to make sure that a different artist didn’t draw those pages.
That aside, the rest of his art is fine. He’s aided by the coloring talents of Jules Rivera, who really helps to set the mood. Magical flares are brightly highlighted, while a darkened pub is lit just enough to let us see the characters while still emphasizing that it’s place of whispers and shady deals.
So, Gutter Magic is off to an OK start with a caution that there’s a lot more story that could stand to be told here. Let’s see if it can pull it all together in the remaining three issues.
Rating: Four grimoires out of five